This week, we’re talking with Carmiel Banasky, an author, television writer, and climate activist. This is our third interview in this series, and I’m excited to be talking to you, because you’re also a writer, and I think it’s always interesting to talk with other writers. Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Sure. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve lived many places since then. I spent some time in Mississippi, trying to start a Planned Parenthood, and failing miserably. And I did other political organizing, around the Kerry campaign and women’s reproductive rights. But climate was definitely always in there, which began in college with starting the solar panel club on campus. I was just the idea person, it was the students after me who really took it to the next level. Now, the whole campus has solar panels. Eventually I got my MFA from Hunter College in New York City. I’d always admired writers like Grace Paley and others who are writers and activists, it’s just one in the same to them. But I definitely had a period of complacency during the Obama years where I didn’t quite know how to hold both roles in my head. I started my novel around that time.
After New York, after my MFA, I took about four years on the road at writing residencies and fellowships like Ucross and VCCA, this vagabond existence as I finished the book. I was living in LA by the time it came out, and I started writing for TV a few years after that. During that time, I went to the Arctic on an artist’s residency – it was this 19th century-replica sailing vessel with thirty artists and writers, ten crew, and a couple of climate scientists. I think we disembarked right when Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The scientists on board presented the facts to us while we were kind of at Ground Zero, watching the glaciers calve behind them as they made their presentations, and it reignited my climate activism.
So when I came back to L.A., I started trying to find ways where I my activism and my writing overlapped. I started co-teaching climate writing workshops along the L.A. River, and doing some climate science talks through Extinction Rebellion. My main purpose here, I feel, is to get Hollywood to tell more climate stories, and for a while I was just doing that, by talking about it all the time, in any meeting, with anybody. Which, you know, puts off some executives, but really excites others, and so I was starting to find my people here, the people who want to make things that matter. There are just so few screen stories that mention climate.
So then I met Anna Jane Joyner—she is a career activist, and I’m like, the hobby activist in comparison. She started The Good Energy Project and has been consulting in TV rooms to help writers integrate climate. She consulted on the Madam Secretary episode [‘The New Normal,’ Season 5, Episode 13]. Now we are writing a resource that will go into TV rooms and be distributed to screenwriters, that is meant to inform and inspire writers to integrate the climate crisis into any and every storyline, to show all the possibilities. Because there’s been this notion that those stories are only depressing, that nobody wants to talk about it or watch it, but they do, they want it. We all need stories to help us process what’s happening, and what will happen. It’s really the one social impact issue that Hollywood doesn’t tackle.
I’m going to come back to that, but first I want to ask if there was sort of a pivotal moment for you when you were younger—you said climate’s your thing—was there something that made you realize that, or prompted you to feel like this was the most urgent thing for you?
I think I was already working in this space when ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out, but I think that did ignite me, and truly was a movie that spurred a lot of activism. But, I think just growing up in Portland, and learning about it from a young age, growing up hiking and then moving to the desert—I went to the University of Arizona for my undergrad degree—maybe living in the constant drought spurred it, but I guess it was gradual, with a little kick in the ass from ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’
We were hoping to include Anna Jane Joyner in this interview, but she became unavailable at the last minute, unfortunately. I wanted to ask about the header on her Twitter page. It’s that great Philip Pullman quote, “After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” I love that quote, and part of the critical portion of my PhD thesis had to do with the therapeutic value of climate fiction for people living through this time, both authors and readers. I’m wondering if that’s the impetus behind the ‘Climate Storytelling Handbook for Hollywood’ that you guys are working on. Is it the idea that people don’t just want it, they need it, to help them deal with the psychological effects of climate change?
Absolutely, yeah. I think that stories are the way you process anything, and the climate crisis is so big that we can’t think about it, our brains shut down. It’s not easily storifiable. It’s too big to be a story. A story of a storm, for instance, is the story of a symptom of the climate crisis, you know? So how do you wrap your head around it? If there’s no beginning or middle, no end that one can clearly see, and there’s no—well, I think there’s a clear villain, but there’s no cartoony villain, and there certainly isn’t a singular hero. Does the hero’s journey answer this question of how to wrap our heads around the enormity of it? Perhaps that’s not the ideal, or only, structure to tell the best climate story. Stories can help us learn how to see the whole of it, and our place in it.
I think even for the storyteller, it’s about processing. I think this project is about putting more stories out into the world that go to a very wide audience, that Hollywood is capable of reaching. But also, you know, I want to be working with anyone and everyone to be a storyteller during this time. Because I think that is how we’ll get through this, and also how we’ll see more resilience, and it’s how we could perhaps imagine a positive feature out of this. Not with blind optimism, but I do think it’s the responsibility of the storyteller to imagine a plausible positive future. Who else is going to?
This is how political will is shifted, through story. If a voting bloc is able to wrap their heads around a story that they want to see, what they want their future to look like, that’s how they will be reaching out to their representatives. But I do think we can all be storytellers, that’s kind of what this crisis needs. And what we need to get through this crisis.
And so the goal of the handbook is to try to get more TV shows and films made about the climate crisis. Can you tell us a little bit more about the handbook itself, does it give advice on how to do it well?
Yeah, so the working title is ‘The Climate Storytelling Bible.’ In the TV world, you have what’s called a ‘TV Bible’ that encompasses the world of the show. We’re having partners come in and write pieces about intersectionality, showing how anyone and everyone is affected by this, but especially already-marginalized groups. We’re laying out the overview of intersectionality, and impacts, and causes, but through a story lens. So having little glimpses of wild story details in each impact, for instance. And then we are focusing mostly on character, because, as you know, that is the avenue into this topic, through people. So we’re interviewing a lot of different players, a lot of frontline workers and people affected by the crisis, and a lot of activists, and scientists, and a couple people in the oil industry, to create a character profile with them and of them, to show all the possibilities of dramatizing this, and how endless the stories really are. And then we’re also including log lines for popular TV shows. Log lines for episodes that could have been, to show how any and every story could include this. It is just part of the world, part of the real world that is not being reflected on television at the moment.
And then we also have a great guest writer, writing about fossil fuel narrative capture, and all of the insidious and subtle narratives that they have been swinging for the past many decades, that we’ve fallen prey to without knowing it. I’m sure you’ve seen the articles coming out now about how BP published the first carbon footprint calculator. So anything from the narrative that it is on the individual to change their lifestyle—instead of pointing a finger at the fossil fuel industry—to, you know, pushing for apocalypse narratives that scare people into inaction.
We want writers to be aware of the narratives that the fossil fuel industry would prefer us to tell, and then suggest ways that we can counter those narratives with our own. And then we’re also having scientists help us, or guest write about climate impacts and what we’re going to see in the future at 1.5, 2.5, or 3 degrees, or beyond. And including what that story world might look like, details that spur the imagination. We’ll also have a library of experts at the end that we are also sort of treating as character profiles, experts that we can put them in touch with.
That’s very interesting. I ‘m looking forward to reading it. In my research, I look at what makes climate fiction effective, and suggest that things like using highly affective language, and emotionally-charged situations, can impact readers deeply. So they begin seeing themselves in those characters, and seeing the weight of that psychological and emotional trauma. You hope that sort of depth of response will prompt them to become more active. I haven’t had a chance to read your novel yet, but from the reviews I’ve read, it has that kind of beautiful, lyrical writing, and detailed descriptions that creates an emotional response.
Yeah, I mean everything you’re talking about is what I was trying to do with the novel, but in terms of mental illness. But, of course, you know, there is so much overlap and mental difficulties and climate.
In my experience, writers who create climate stories also consume them voraciously. What are some climate change films, or television shows, or novels for that matter, that you think get it right?
I mean, there are very few climate change television shows, which is why we’re doing this project. There are a few that do integrate it. So one thing we are talking about is just the spectrum on which writers could think about this. You know, we would love for there to be full-on climate stories that are about systemic change. Where climate drives character, and drives the plot, but there are a whole lot of other ways to integrate it, just making it more a part of the public conversation. So anything from just a brief mention in dialogue, to showing it in setting, to even just, if nothing else, showing positive environmental behaviors on screen, like not showing single-use plastics, etc. We also have a top-10 list of behaviors on screen that we’d love to see emulated. So I am happy whenever it’s mentioned. There’s the ‘Madam Secretary’ episode, and I really like the ‘Big Little Lies’ episode where they talked about how it was causing the little girl anxiety. And then ‘Years and Years,’ the British show, integrated it into the world in a way that was very effective. There’s a film, recently, that was just so wonderful. We do a case study of them in the Climate Storytelling Bible. It’s called, ‘Woman at War.’ Did you see that? It’s an Icelandic film.
No. I haven’t seen that one yet.
It really tackles the eco-terrorist trope. Which is a trope created by the fossil fuel industry, and so they show how she is an activist who is trying to—she’s a warrior, really—who’s trying to take down this aluminum plant, I believe, and cutting off power to it. And she releases this manifesto about taking care of the Earth, and then they—the powers that be—change the narrative, and they make her out to be the villain of the people. So, it’s showing how, you know, every day, the fossil fuel industry undermines activists and scientists, and so I just thought it was a great way to show how easily the narrative can be switched.
Maja Lunde’s ‘The End of the Ocean’ does something similar. I don’t know if you’ve read that one.
I haven’t. no. It’s a beautiful title.
It is. She’s Norwegian, and her work is all very connected to nature. That novel does something similar, with her protagonist taking action alone against a company, and she doesn’t even have to explain it to us, because we understand why she’s doing it. I like the idea of sharing the activist’s internal monologue, which helps people understand why people do those sorts of things, and how they’re not necessarily the bad guys.
That’s kind of the only image we’ve seen of the environmental advocate. I thought that ‘The Overstory’ did a good job of that as well, showing what that looks like, and why one would go there. But I also don’t think it represents most of us. You know, most of us wouldn’t go there. So I also love seeing other forms of environmentalism. That can be just as dramatic. I love ‘Migrations,’ the novel by Charlotte McConaghy. And right now, I’m reading Alexandra Kleeman’s ‘Something New Under the Sun,’ a satire about the drought and climate in Los Angeles and Hollywood. It’s very funny. Using humor to tackle it, too, is so important.
There are some really good recommendations there. I think we agree that climate change stories in whatever form can change minds, and can make people care more about climate change, even if they don’t become activists. Do you happen to know any personal stories of people who were changed or affected by reading or viewing a climate story?
I honestly don’t think there are enough to have heard those personal stories yet, but that we’re going to see it. There are so many analogous stories to look at. Like ‘Will and Grace.’ Or ‘Pose.’ Or like the first lesbian sex scene, I think, was Willow and Tara on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ There’s nothing political about it in a way, because it was just these characters, and you love these characters, you love following these characters. Or Anna Jane talks about ‘The Newsies’ affecting her as a kid, showing what activism could be, that one can change the system through collective action. I think showing activism, and especially showing it in a positive light that truly creates change, I think that can get people off their butts. And that’s not to say that every story needs to be infused with positivity, and there’s a lot of stories, you know, that don’t end well because of systemic oppression, but I think those are very effective stories.
It seems like there are a lot of climate fiction novels coming out right now. Do you see much on the horizon in Hollywood?
I see a lot of people wanting to do it, a lot of writers, and I still see a lot of gatekeepers being hesitant. So that is kind of the goal of this book, to show that this is what viewers want. They shouldn’t be scared, especially right now. You know, there’s just a lot of people, a lot of writers getting the reaction, “that’s too depressing” because they’re dealing with the stop-and-go-ness of the pandemic, and I think that executives would rather green light positive stories. They think that’s what viewers want. So I do think that one of the problems is that climate is synonymous—to them—with apocalypse. A lot of writers do, too.
But there are millions of stories we could be telling, family stories, romantic comedies, that can infuse climate. So, I think we have to get over that assumption, that it is going to be the darkest story you’ve ever watched, just because it touches on climate. A climate story can be about community, it can be about care and growth, even as home as we know it is changing, crumbling. So I think there’s hope that there’s a lot on the horizon, and a lot of companies, like A24 and Fable Entertainment, who want to. So I think there are a lot of people who want to be telling climate stories, and there’s still a big hurdle. We have to approach it in a careful way.
So, should we look out for a climate change novel or script from you in the near future?
Yeah, I have many in the works. So, if those were actually made, that’d be awesome.
Carmiel Banasky is the author of ‘The Suicide of Claire Bishop’ and wrote for the Amazon Studios show, ‘Undone.’ You can find her at carmielbanasky.com. Her project with Anna Jane Joyner, ‘The Climate Storytelling Bible,’ launching in early 2022, will be published by The Good Energy Project. Anna Jane Joyner is the founder of The Good Energy Project, and can be found at goodenergystories.com.